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China’s Military Drills Around Taiwan: Testing the Waters for a Power Grab

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China's latest military maneuvers encircling Taiwan

China’s latest military exercises around Taiwan designed to test its ability to “seize power” over the island, according to the People’s Liberation Army. These large scale drills, which began on Friday, are the most extensive in over a year and involve encircling Taiwan, a democratic neighbor.

The timing of the exercises is notable, occurring just days after Taiwan inaugurated its new president, Lai Ching-te. Lai, known for his strong stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty and distinct identity, highly disliked by Beijing.

The drills underscore the heightened tensions between China and Taiwan, with Beijing’s actions reflecting its opposition to Lai’s presidency and its ongoing claim over Taiwan.

Beijing has strongly criticized Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching-te, labeling him a “dangerous separatist.” This condemnation comes after Lai’s inauguration speech on Monday, where he urged China to stop intimidating Taiwan, a behavior that has escalated notably under Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

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The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), significantly larger than Taiwan’s military, commenced its exercises on Thursday morning. These drills involve sending warships and fighter jets around Taiwan and its surrounding islands.

Beijing has described these actions as “a strong punishment for separatist acts of Taiwan independence forces,” indicating its firm opposition to any moves towards Taiwanese independence.

On Friday, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command announced the continuation of military drills around Taiwan. These exercises conducted on both sides of the Taiwan island chain to “test the ability to jointly seize power, launch joint attacks, and occupy key areas.”

This map shows Chinese military encircling Taiwan.
This map shows Chinese military encircling Taiwan.

The Chinese Communist Party considers Taiwan part of its territory, even though it has never actually controlled the island. Beijing has vowed to take Taiwan by force if necessary, reflecting its determination to bring the island under its rule.

The vast majority of Taiwanese people have no desire to live under Chinese rule. However, Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader in a generation. Which has stated that the island’s “inevitable reunification” with the mainland cannot delayed indefinitely.

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China’s two day military exercises involve joint operations by the army, navy, air force, and rocket force. These drills are taking place in the Taiwan Strait a narrow body of water separating the island from mainland China as well as to the north, south, and east of Taiwan, according to the PLA.

The exercises aim to demonstrate China’s capability to jointly seize power, launch joint attacks, and occupy key areas.

In a notable development, the PLA drills around Taiwan now include China’s Coast Guard. Which operating near the island’s outlying territories of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu, and Dongyin, situated just off China’s southeastern coast.

CCTV broadcasted footage on Friday, showing PLA soldiers strategically positioning mobile artillery and missile systems. However, the footage did not depict any live firing exercises.

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Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has strongly criticized China’s military exercises as “irrational provocations” and has mobilized its own sea, air, and ground forces in response.

During the 24-hour period from 6 a.m. Thursday to 6 a.m. Friday, the ministry detected a total of 49 Chinese aircraft, with 35 of them crossing the Median Line. This line serves as an informal demarcation point in the Taiwan Strait, although Beijing does not officially recognize it.

In recent years, China had largely respected this line, but the increased crossing of aircraft signals a shift in its approach.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry reported the detection of 19 Chinese warships and seven coast guard vessels near the Taiwan Strait.

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In response to these actions, Taiwan’s presidential office expressed regret on Thursday. As stating it is “regrettable to see China threatening Taiwan’s democracy and freedom and regional peace and stability with unilateral military provocations.” The office emphasized Taiwan’s confidence and capability to protect its national security amidst such challenges.

Taiwan’s New President:

Lai Ching-te has faced a busy and politically turbulent beginning to his presidency as he succeeded two term leader Tsai Ing-wen. By marking a historic third consecutive term for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The PLA’s military drills present the first significant challenge for the seasoned politician in handling tensions with Beijing. Despite Lai’s attempts to initiate dialogue and resume cross-strait tourism and student exchanges, Beijing has refused to engage.

The current president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) is Tsai Ing-wen, serving as the 8th president.
The current president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) is Tsai Ing-wen, serving as the 8th president.

On Friday, China’s Defense Ministry accused Taiwan’s President, Lai Ching-te, of pushing the island into “a dangerous situation of war” and “playing with fire.”

Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian, addressing reporters, also used familiar rhetoric employed by China towards Taiwan’s government, stating. “Those who play with fire will burn themselves.” He further warned that whenever “Taiwan independence” forces provoke China. They will escalate their countermeasures until achieving the complete reunification of the mainland with Taiwan.

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Domestically, President Lai faces legislative chaos, with opposition parties advocating closer ties to China holding a majority. They are pushing for tighter scrutiny of Lai’s administration.

In response, thousands of predominantly young protestors have taken to the streets. By objecting to the opposition’s efforts to expedite proposed bills aimed at granting more power to the parliament.

Despite Beijing’s significant show of force, life in Taiwan has continued as usual. The island’s 23 million residents have grown accustomed to China’s military threats. Even as they have become more frequent and prominent in recent years.

We are not scared of the Chinese Communist Party, and we have confidence, stated an 88-year-old retiree. Which identified only by his surname Liu, in an interview with CNN. Liu emphasized that if the Chinese Communist Party were to attack Taiwan. It would face significant challenges, as Taiwanese people are not afraid of war.

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Similarly, a 42-year-old mother, identified by her surname Tsai, expressed her lack of awareness about the PLA drills. “I believe leaders will prioritize people’s happiness, so I’m not worried. I think peace will be maintained,” she stated. By reflecting a sentiment of trust in leadership and optimism for peace among many Taiwanese citizens.

Taiwan’s Blockade Concerns:

China’s military exercises serve not only to communicate intentions internationally but also to showcase strength to a domestic audience. State media has significantly increased coverage of these drills.

According to Zhang Chi, a Chinese military expert interviewed by China’s state broadcaster CCTV. The PLA’s exercises are focused on “practicing a new mode of blockading Taiwan.” He highlighted Taiwan’s vulnerability as an isolated island heavily reliant on imports for its economy and energy consumption.

Zhang emphasized that a blockade could swiftly lead to economic collapse, portraying Taiwan as a “dead island.”

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Chinese military ship.
Chinese military ship.

According to Chinese military expert Zhang, the exercises conducted south of Taiwan play a crucial role in the blockade strategy. These drills specifically target Kaohsiung port, Taiwan’s largest port, and a significant base for the island’s navy.

Additionally, drills to the east of Taiwan aim to practice cutting off the island’s energy imports. Which blocking escape routes for “Taiwan independence” forces, and disrupting support lines from the US and its allies.

The United States, while maintaining close but informal relations with Taiwan, is legally obligated to supply the island with weapons for self-defense. This adds a layer of complexity to the situation, as tensions between China and Taiwan persist amidst these strategic maneuvers.

Zhang also highlighted a significant achievement in the drills, noting that they had made “a new breakthrough.” By entering waters near Wuqiu and Dongyin, which hold crucial geographical importance.

These islands are considered front outposts for Taiwan Strait defense operations by the Taiwanese military. This exercise further restricts the activity space of the Taiwanese military, Zhang explained.

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Analysts emphasized the importance of the China Coast Guard’s movement close to and around these outlying islands. Which marks a notable aspect of the ongoing drills. These exercises follow previous encirclement exercises conducted in August 2022 and April 2023.

The presence of Coast Guard and other forces in waters close to these offshore islands is provocative, stated Carl Schuster. A former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, underscoring the tensions surrounding China’s military activities near Taiwan’s territories.

Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center,. By anticipates that Chinese activities near Taiwan will also persist and become increasingly common. He suggests that Beijing could easily transition from exercises to real military operations at any time.

Craig Singleton, a senior China fellow at the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that China’s pattern of drills around Taiwan doesn’t indicate an imminent invasion threat. Instead, he believes these exercises serve to blur the lines between peace and war.

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Singleton suggests that future drills could be used as a pretext for an actual invasion, indicating a larger political message rather than purely military intentions.

Lionel Fatton, an assistant professor of international relations at Webster University in Geneva, referred to China’s term for the recent drills, “Joint Sword 2024A,” indicating Beijing’s intention to reactivate military pressure as a means to influence the new administration in Taiwan and shape its narrative.

Fatton cautioned that Beijing aims to exploit the pressure from the drills to exacerbate divisions within Taiwan, ultimately weakening the island from within. He emphasized that the constant and visible military pressure on Taiwan could lead to further polarization within its political apparatus and potentially impact its social fabric.

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